The UK welform reform debate and competing types of fairness

Supporters and opponents of the coalition’s welfare reforms have each sought out one particular piece of moral high ground to defend their conflicting positions: the lofty mountain peak that is fairness. If the famous shopkeepers in philosophical arguments of old, used to argue from different premises, these retailers of outrage and reform appear to be in the same shop, operating with the same premise, the same high moral purpose both claiming fairness as their motivation.  Callers to talk radio, newspaper letter writers, newspaper columnists and politicians have built a modern day tower of Babel on the application of the word fairness to current welfare reform policy.

Three aspects’ of the Coalition’s welfare reforms are particularly fair and apparently, simultaneously, not fair:

  • The bedroom tax
  • The decision to reduce benefit levels by not uprating for inflation
  • The household  cap on the amount any household can claim in total

Each of these is defended by the Coalition in the name of fairness: the household cap is fair because people who are not working shouldn’t get more than those working, the cut in real terms in benefits a reflection of the fact that workers who fund benefit payments have seen some of the biggest ever falls in real incomes, and the bedroom tax justified by treating those in social housing in the same way as those in the private rented sector. Opponents of these reforms simply state that making poor people poorer is unfair, per se and that’s that.

Now one explanation for the apparent disconnect on the word fairness advanced on the left is that the Conservatives don’t really believe in fairness and that they are using Orwellian speak to promote their traditional assault on the poor.  It was however,  the Conservative Bismarck who founded the first welfare state in late nineteenth century Germany by creating a system of insurance to protect workers during periods of sickness and from the effects of industrial accidents.  Curiously, at the time this wrong footed the German socialists who had not develop this type of proposal.   Bismarck thought a system of insurance where you take out what you put in, subject to certain eligibility rules, a form of fairness, Conservatives still do as evidenced by the continental Christian Democrat support for the insurance based model of social welfare.

So are there two types of fairness one to which the right subscribes and one on the left?  Left and right are often sheepish on this matter as each can see that the other’s usage of fairness has some justification.  The left can see that treating social housing and private renting differently in respect of the total amount of benefit received violates a certain type of fairness and most of the right will acknowledge that people receive benefits not just to survive  but as an indicator of fairness as redistribution.

The cognitive linguist George Lakoff in his Moral Politics is interested to enumerate the ways in which language and metaphor appear to give an advantage to the political right, in doing so he considers the moral values that underlie political discourse and finds that in respect of fairness we have ten types (Moral politics P129)

  • Fairness as redistribution
  • Equality of opportunity
  • Procedural distribution – playing by the rules
  • Rights based fairness  – you get what you have a right to
  • Needs based fairness – the more you need the more you have right to
  • Scalar distribution – the more you work, the more you get
  • Contractual distribution – you get what you agree to
  • Equal distribution of responsibility – we share the burden equally
  • Scalar distribution of responsibility – the greater your abilities the greater your responsibilities
  • Equal distribution of power – one person, one vote

Now Lakoff despaired of the inability of the left to frame issues to their advantage but he will have taken delight in the “bedroom tax” which is an incredible description of a benefit cut.  A rare framing success for the left.

Jonathan Haidt founded political psychology in 2012 with his landmark ‘The Righteous Mind’ by not finding out the underlying psychological traits which go to make up political attitudes but instead identifying the “moral foundations” which make up the superstructure of political action in a sample of tens of thousands of individuals.   Prime among these moral foundations is, as expected, fairness, mainly as redistribution but Haidt also observes that Conservatives are concerned with fairness as proportionality – taking out what you put in.  Haidt’s other key finding is that the moral foundations are strongly and weakly held by different individuals and for “fairness as redistribution” the right shares this foundation but holds it weakly which differentiates them from those on the left which hold it well, ferociously.  So to Lakoff’s list above add in fairness as proportionality.

Back to Bismarck – he was employing three types of fairness in his social insurance scheme 1. Fairness as proportionality – workers take out what they put in when in need it 2. Fairness as playing by the rules – the social insurance scheme is a set of rules  3. Fairness as redistribution – is addressed in the state sanctioning and support for his scheme.

Now it can be noticed that all the concepts of fairness in the Lakoff list above are uncontroversial, broadly everyone can subscribe to them to some degree but so important to the left is fairness as redistribution that the other types of fairness are often simply dragooned along in support.  The right does this as well creating its own interlocking type of fairness set.  This differing emphasis on different types of fairness is part of the explanation for the talk radio late night chaos as well as the incomprehension on the floor of the House of Commons.

The confusion doesn’t end there: fairness happens in the context of social relations and there are four of these.  You have kin or lovers and you are disposed to regard their needs as similar to your own, this relationship mode has been called Communal Sharing by the anthropologist Robert Fiske, you are someone’s boss or an a position of authority over them at work, at the church, in the drug gang or at the scouts, you are also subordinate to others in some hierarchical arrangement, Fiske calls this Authority Ranking.  You have friends and colleagues and your relationship can be one of “you scratch my back and I will scratch yours” – Equality Matching according to Fiske.  There is a fourth relationship: that of contract, with your employer, with your employees, with your  rice supplier, a contract to supply and receive on a monetary basis.  For Fiske this is Market Pricing and each of the four are deeply cognitively understood, sometimes venerated.

Plainly some of Lakoff’s fairness types map to differing social relations with “Scalar distribution of responsibility – the greater your abilities the greater your responsibilities” clearly originating in Authority Ranking and “equal distribution of power – one person, one vote” grounded in Equality Matching.  In fact a matrix can be built of types of fairness, left and right and the social relations in which the apply:

Fairness   Type expressed strongly on the Right Social   Relation Referenced   Fairness   Type expressed strongly on the Left Social   Relation Referenced
Procedural distribution – playing by the   rules Equality Matching Fairness as redistribution Communal Sharing
Scalar distribution – the more you work,   the more you get Market Pricing Equality of opportunity Market Pricing
Contractual distribution – you get what   you agree to Market Pricing Rights based fairness  – you what you have a right to Equality Matching
Scalar distribution of responsibility –   the greater your abilities the greater your responsibilities Authority Ranking Needs based fairness – the more you need   the more you have right to Communal Sharing
Fairness as proportionality Equality Matching Equal distribution of responsibility – we   share the burden equally Equality Matching /Authority Ranking
Equal distribution of power – one person,   one vote Equality Matching Equal distribution of power – one person,   one vote Equality Matching

Several important ideas flow from the table analysis:

  • One type  of fairness is held in equal esteem – one person one vote but that has  little consequence for welfare policy
  • Fairness   types cluster on the right or left – It might be possible to argue that the left dragoons  all types of      fairness in support of the dominant fairness as redistribution type, and      the right venerates fairness as getting more for more effort and getting  what you to agree to as primary types with the others in support.
  • The  appeal of the left’s politics is heavily grounded in the social structure  of Communal Sharing leading to the continual use of that particular  framing and the emphasis on fairness as redistribution
  • The   appeal of Market Pricing on the right, in the described by Fiske as the “absolute freedom of rational choice,      together with the sanctity of voluntarily negotiated contracts” is  venerated, driving the right’s prioritization of fairness types such as  “Scalar distribution – the more      you work, the more you get” and “Contractual distribution – you get what  you agree to”
  • Both left   and right can agree with the entire list, to a degree

On the recent policy reforms each can be addressed by appealing to the fairness types and the way in which they play in differing social relations.

Policy Coalition   Fairness Type Reference Opponents   Fairness Type Reference
Bedroom Tax Procedural distribution – playing by the   rules

Aligning the rights of private and public   sector tenants justified by the law of contract which sits in Market Pricing

Rights based fairness  – you what you have a right to

Security of tenure for social tenants   should not be overturned by benefit reductions justified by (social) Equality   Matching

Household Cap Fairness as proportionality – aligning   the earnings of benefit payers to those of benefit recipients justified by   Equality Matching Needs based fairness – the more you need   the more you have right to

Needs are needs and fairness dictates   that they should be met strong Communal Sharing method

Benefits Not Uprating for Inflation Fairness as proportionality – aligning   the earnings of benefit payers’ declining incomes to those of benefit   recipients justified by Equality Matching Needs based fairness – the more you need   the more you have right to

Needs are needs and fairness dictates   that they should be met strong Communal Sharing method

So in conclusion, proponents and opponents of these reforms need to address each other’s notions of fairness and not dismiss the other as being engaged in Orwellian doublespeak.  Fairness really does mean many different things.

An interesting question would be to posit which type of welfare policy could satisfy as many possible notions of fairness to allow broad-based support for reform.